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Cardboard Children: Fortress America

Staying dicey

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Hello youse.

I missed Fortress America first time round. It was originally released as one of the MB Gamesmaster series, alongside games like Axis & Allies and the brilliant Shogun. For years, I’ve heard it called one of the purest examples of the “Ameritrash” style. It’s a game that features a map of America, lots of little plastic units, and a handful of dice. It’s one of those games I’d always hoped to find in a charity shop one sunny day, on a shelf alongside the Aliens board game and a working Dark Tower.

Fantasy Flight Games has spoiled that dream by releasing a new edition of the game and making it available in shops all over the place. And not a penny goes to charity. There’s no charity in Fortress America. Only ruthlessness. Let’s rock.
FORTRESS AMERICA

One nation. Under a groove. Rolling dice just for the funk of it.

America is out of control, seriously. It has started to build these giant lasers that can fire from long range, and the other nations of the world don’t like it. With a laser in New York, America could probably shoot the bad teeth out of an Englishman’s mouth. From Washington, it could shoot a schoolgirl’s used panties out of a Tokyo vending machine. There is no other option for the world than to invade America and dismantle the lasers, send them through a time portal, and repurpose them as vibrators for dinosaurs. I’ve invented much of this.

One player is America. There are three other forces, invading America from the South, the East and the West. It’s one against three. Who are the bad guys? War isn’t that simple, it’s not black and white. Blah blah blah. All that we can say for sure is that if you’re America, you’re up against it at first. And if you’re the invaders, you’ll be up against it in pretty short order if you don’t hit hard and fast and smart.

What surprised me most about Fortress America was the story it told. Whenever I see a game with a map and a bunch of little plastic soldiers, I always ask myself this important question – do I have this story already? (When I talk about story here, I’m talking about the story told through the gameplay, not through fluff or dinosaur dildos.) I can honestly say I have never been told the story that Fortress America tells. And no wonder. It’s straight bananas.

When the game begins, America is caught on the hop. The American player has to spread forces around the board, with no more than two units in each territory. The defences are thin. The invading players stack their forces up on the edge of American territory, and they have loads of units. They can easily charge in, five units to a territory, overwhelming the American forces close to the border. The invaders always act first in a round, so the American player is constantly responding to invader actions. Within the first couple of rounds, things can look very bleak for the good old USA. It will have to hang on in there in the early going to have any hope of survival. Man!

The invaders win if a round ends with 18 American cities under their control. America wins if it wipes out the invaders or manages to survive ten rounds.

I should clarify how the game works. The armies have air units, mechanised units and infantry. When not invading, infantry can only move using transports. Movement isn’t just something you do, it’s something you torture yourself with. I played a game where one invader fucked up by leaving lots of infantry reinforcements miles back on the border while all his transports were far inland. That’s a mistake that takes time to fix, and time is against the invaders. That troop movement is everything. For the invaders it’s a game of steady advancements and holding lines, with the occasional sweeps and rushes. For America it’s all about re-organising, establishing your defence and choosing points of retaliation.

What also matters hugely is the balance of your forces. When you want to take a city or a mountain region, you receive a combat bonus for “combined troop actions”. If you have air, mechanised and infantry units all involved in the same battle, that will make the assault much easier. Each battle is weighed in the defender’s advantage. Territory can be difficult to claim, or claim back.

Combat itself is simple and clean. Defenders shoot first. Dice are colour coded. Battles conclude quickly. You can tell that this is a game that originally came from a “family boardgame” company. You’ll have all the rules down within a round or two. It’s nice when that happens, YOU HEAR ME ALL YOU PUBLISHERS OUT THERE?!

You can already see that, as simple as the game is, there’s a lot to think about. But where the game really shines is in the story. It’s the same story every time, sure, but the pace of that story changes. The dramatic beats fall at different points. Last time, the hero might have been a bizarrely tough hovertank unit in New York. This time the hero might be a partisan that ran amok in the mountains.

Ah, yeah. The partisans. Beautiful.

When the game begins, America has its cities and a wide spread of thin defences. As the rounds pass, however, resistance starts to spring up. The people of America fight back against their invaders. You draw two Partisan Cards at the start of your America turn, and you’ll find fighters rushing out of the mines or leaping from the mountains to assault your enemies. America starts to wake up, and momentum starts to slowly shift. That laser technology I mentioned? Every round the American player can build a laser at a city, and the lasers can be fired at any enemy unit on the board. For the invaders, a laser is a big problem. By round 5, it’s five lasers, and the invaders start to run out of clean underwear.

The laser firing phase is such a buzz. You can feel the dread at the table.

And this is what I love about the game. The “feel”. There are better dudes on a map games than Fortress America. But none of them tell this story. You can almost imagine the flow of the game as newspaper headlines.

AMERICA INVADED!
AMERICAN FORCES IN DISARRAY
EASTERN SEABOARD FALLS!
AMERICA: NO SURRENDER
LASER TECH HITS BACK
INVADERS LOSE GROUND IN SOUTH
THE PEOPLE RISE UP!
LASER WARFARE SHIFTS TIDE
ENGLISHMAN’S BAD TEETH SHOT OUT!

Man, this is a fun, old-school game. When you play it, you can almost picture yourself in an American college dorm room, with Red Dawn playing on the TV and Born In The USA on the radio. And Sally knocks on the door and asks you to go to the diner with her, and you’re all like “Sorry, Sally, I’m playing Fortress America with the guys!” And you don’t lose your virginity for another six years and you’re a fucking idiot.

This game would probably not be designed in 2012. Publishers would turn up their nose at it and say there aren’t enough rules, or that luck plays too big a part in the battles. Or that the story of the game is just too silly and you might have mental health issues for even thinking of it. But fuck those guys, because Fortress America already exists, it rules, and it’s about an America that we all secretly love.

See, when I was young, America was this big scary glamorous place that would fuck you up if you looked at it the wrong way. America existed in my head as a creature with Stallone’s muscles, an eagle’s head, Ronald Reagan’s voice and a rocket launcher. In the 1980s, American culture fed me the idea that the USA was built on solid foundations of kissing beautiful girls, driving shit hot cars, shooting anyone who wasn’t American, putting lasers in space and playing some pretty sweet rawk guitar. Now all of this is BAD, sure, and it was a LIE too. But for an 8 year old boy in Glasgow it was certainly cool. Every kid wanted to be an American in the 80s. Fact. These days America is just a confused skinny dude with horn-rimmed glasses trying to decide what to do with a bible.

Fortress America is that good old 1980s fictional America in a box. This is the ultimate guilty pleasure. Pick it up, open some beers, and enjoy some Old Glory.

CITY OF HORROR UPDATE

I’ve been told I’ll be getting my hands on City of Horror the minute it is available. I will assemble my friends and play it to death (and lose all my friends in the process, because this game is BRUTAL). I expect to be covering it in September, so start counting the days. And here is the cover!

Check out the guy kicking the fella out of the building. THAT is some Mall of Horror shit right there. I can’t wait. GIMME GIMME.

BOARDGAMES AT REZZED

You’re all going to Rezzed, right? The powerhouses that are Rock Paper Shotgun and Eurogamer are doing a games show, and it’s in Brighton, which I’m told is further south than Scotland, further north than France, and lower down than the sky.

Well, there’s going to be a board game section there, with games for you to have a play with. I am now going to tell you which games are going, and comment briefly on each.

Zombie Dice – I love this fun little game. So will you.
Jungle Speed – You might do yourself an injury. Don’t try it while drunk.
Zombies! – Entry level fun. Not as bad as some snobs will suggest.
Carcassonne – I hate it. So boring. Most people disagree with me. Make up your own mind.
Settlers of Catan – Just a beautiful board game. I’ll hear nothing against it.
Dominion – A fine design. I find it a bit lacking in theme, but I admire and enjoy it.
Khet 2.0 – This is a game that I bought ages back, and my lasers don’t work in my thingies. I need to contact the publisher for replacement thingies. It looks fun with the thingies and so on.
The Walking Dead (TV version) – Haven’t played this. Hopefully it’s better than the show.
Game of Thrones LCG – Haven’t played this either. I’ve heard good things about it from a friend who enjoys Magic.
Warhammer: Invasion – One of my favourite games. A beautiful, exciting design, rich with theme.
Dixit Journey – I’ve spoken about Dixit many times. A modern classic.
Munchkin Deluxe – Munchkin is a weird one. I’d be interested to hear what YOU think.

So, yeah. Lots of games for you to check out at what will be a fantastic show. I might try to get down there myself, if I can clear the time. Book some tix.

Until next time, stay dicey! (That has to go. Terrible.)

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Robert Florence

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